My grandfather, Abe, had worked most of his life for British American Tobacco, in such far flung places as Timbuktu, Singapore, and Morocco. He came from a hard-drinking colonial background and was quite comfortable having wallahs drive him around and clean up his messes. He loved to go out in the jungle after a few G and Ts to try and bag a tiger or two, a procession of brown skinned minions following along with his necessaries. In the late twenties he married a girl called Bunny, a socialite and flapper who looked like Louise Brooks and was as fond of gin and tonic and wild Indian adventure as he was. By the onset of the war between England and Germany in 1940 they had settled in Tanzania, where she gave birth to my father, and his twin brother, Alfonse.
Abe and Bunny weren’t really the parenting type, it has to be said: after all, it’s not easy to stalk big game when you’ve got a couple of squawking children in tow, and it doesn’t do a great deal for your social life, either. As soon as was feasibly possible (which was pretty much straight away) the brothers were packed off to England, where they received a traditional boarding school education and spent the holidays being brought up by Abe’s maiden sister, Eardley, in Sevenoaks.
Eardley lived in a timber house at 50a, Pilgrim’s Way, that had an extremely long rutted driveway and a wildly overgrown back garden stretching all the way down the hill and halfway to the next village. She was not at all like Abe or their elder sister Prudence in her outlook upon life. She refused to pick flowers; she’d say that they were far more beautiful in the places where God had put them, and in the summer, when her kitchen was full of flies, it would never even cross her mind to swat them. “Just because you find something irritating,” she would say to the boys, “doesn’t mean you have to kill it.” Margarine meant nothing to her. Although not conventionally beautiful, she had plenty of suitors. The twins loved her far more than their father, or their Aunt Prudence. When, eventually, my father had sons of his own, he would bring us over to Auntie Eardley’s, and we too would spend the endless weeks of summer in the long grass of 50a.
In 1975, my father decided to move his bulging family into a four storey Victorian house in Maidstone. The house, which stood on the corner of Milton Street, had room upon endless room, a series of attics, an underground kitchen, and an outside toilet. It was bigger than some small countries. It was more than large enough for the seven of us; large enough in fact, that it would be quite possible to peacefully cohabit without the necessity of ever seeing one another again, should that be our desire.
To help with the cost of running such a large house, my parents decided that they’d better get a couple of Saudi Arabians who could live in the attic. Nasser and Mohammed, they were called, and they were both studying to be doctors. My brother and I loved Mohammed, who always seemed to find time to play with us, but were wary of Nasser, who rarely came down from his attic. My mother’s attitude towards him probably didn’t help, either. “Mohammed,” she’d tell the neighbours, “well, he’s a perfect gentleman, and very clean,” before adding, in that sideways way of hers, “but as for Nasser, you couldn’t scrape his pants off with a palate knife, the filthy little urchin.”
It was around that time that Abe gassed himself. He and Bunny had settled down a few years previously, in a house by the harbour at Baltimore, County Cork. They’d dispensed with the hired help and they weren’t hunting so much big game anymore, but aside from this their lifestyle hadn’t changed much. It was still a whirlwind of gin, social engagements and photo shoots for Country Life and Hello! magazine. But after sixty years of smoking Senior Service, Bunny ended up with cancer of the throat, and following several strokes in quick succession, Abe was reduced to hobbling around on a Zimmer frame.
This was a dreadful blow to his pride. He, who had always been the number one man; he, who had caused the blood in the veins of the Hun to run cold; he, who had bagged a hundred tigers and sired as many illegitimate piccaninnies was, it seemed, down for the count. He grew quieter and more introspective, and began to let himself go. It was only small things at first, like neglecting to wax his moustache or farting in the company of ladies, but as his depression grew his behaviour became more erratic, and he’d do insane things such as leaving the house without his plus fours, or buying the Daily Mirror.
Finally it all became too much for him, and he decided to kill himself. In his suicide note he begged Bunny’s forgiveness for becoming such a burden, and suggested that she’d probably get along quite nicely without him, from now on. He waited until she was on a shopping trip to Skibbereen before he threw his seven.
He was found later that evening, stone dead, with his head in the oven and his plus fours halfway down the garden.